NEW YORK — The U.S. Justice Department has launched a sweeping inquiry into the New York Police Department’s famed sex crimes investigators following years of complaints about the way they treat crime victims.
The civil rights investigation, announced Thursday and spurred by a letter last year from appalled victims, will examine whether the NYPD’s Special Victims Division engages in a pattern of gender-biased policing, officials said.
“Survivors of sexual assault should expect effective, trauma-informed and victim-centered investigations by police departments,” said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. New York City’s two U.S. attorneys joined her in announcing the inquiry.
The police unit inspired TV’s “Law & Order: SVU,” and the real-life version has tackled such major cases as the prosecution of former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. But the division also has faced a decade of complaints about thin staffing and superficial investigations.
In a 2019 lawsuit, a woman alleged detectives shrugged off her report of being raped by someone she’d been involved with, logging it as a “dispute” instead of a sex crime. Another woman said in the suit that her account of being kidnapped and gang-raped was grossly mishandled for months before she was told the case was “too complex” to investigate.
After the lawsuit and a leadership shakeup, the NYPD promised change. But victims’ advocates say it hasn’t happened.
“We hope the Justice Department’s investigation and our lawsuit will finally result in real change for victims and survivors of sexual assault in New York City,” said the women’s lawyer, Mariann Wang.
The NYPD said it welcomes the review and is committed to improving its investigations.
Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said she believed any “constructive” review would “show that the NYPD has been evolving and improving in this area, but we will be transparent and open to criticism as well as ideas.”
Mayor Eric Adams, a retired police captain who took office in January and appointed Sewell, said she immediately took steps to make sure the unit was “professional.”
“We were not sitting on our hands,” the Democrat said.
Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, said the NYPD has already taken steps to address concerns, but authorities want to ensure victims are treated fairly in the future.
Justice Department officials said they planned a comprehensive review of policies, procedures and training for the Special Victims Division’s sex assault investigations — including how police interact with survivors and witnesses, collect evidence and complete investigations.
The officials also want to see what steps the police department has taken to fix deficiencies, including the unit’s staffing and its services for sexual assault survivors.
In a letter to the Justice Department last August calling for an investigation, victims described the NYPD’s work on sex crimes and other sensitive cases as “negligent and sexist.”
The Weinstein case spotlighted the sex crimes division, which helped build a prosecution that ended with a watershed conviction for the #MeToo movement. But along the way, prosecutors dropped one of the charges in 2018, after evidence surfaced that a detective had coached a witness and told an accuser to delete material from her cellphone.
A lawyer for the woman whose allegation was dropped from the case has faulted prosecutors for what happened. She said Thursday that she welcomed shining light on police practices, offering a mixed view of the police sex crimes unit.
“Our experience is that many viable sexual assault cases are tossed out by police at the earliest stages of investigation,” said the attorney, Carrie Goldberg. “On the other hand, some of the most consequential sexual assault prosecutions of recent history — for example, that of Harvey Weinstein — were driven by the tenacity of dedicated NYPD investigators.”
After the 2019 lawsuit, the unit got a new leader, Judith Harrison, and shifted to what she called a “victim-centered” approach — but she soon moved to a different position.
Successor Michael King, appointed in 2020, was a veteran investigator and forensic nurse. King was removed from the job in February, amid complaints about his leadership and continued mishandling of cases.
Last October, a woman who identified herself as a rape victim told a City Council hearing that detectives failed to interview witnesses, collect security camera footage from the bar where she’d been before the attack, or test for date-rape drugs. She said they closed the case twice without telling her.
In another case, detailed in a 2020 article in The New York Times, a New York University student said a sex crimes detective openly doubted her allegation that a stranger had raped her in her apartment. The investigator talked her out of moving forward and shut down the case, she said.
The suspected rapist, identified through fingerprints on a condom wrapper found at the apartment, was later jailed on burglary charges — but ended up being released and assaulting three more women because the Special Victims Division never told prosecutors he was a rape suspect, the Times reported.
The unit has also been under scrutiny, including from the NYPD’s internal affairs bureau, for allegedly mishandling rape kits and for investigators allegedly shortchanging the department on hours worked.
Damian Williams, the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, said sex crimes victims “deserve the same rigorous and unbiased investigations of their cases that the NYPD affords to other categories of crime.”